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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Letter 33: Where have you gone, Jane Austen?

The usual potpourri of concealed meanings in one of Jane Austen's letters, touching on many of her usual concerns and pet peeves:


"I shall want two new coloured gowns for the summer, for my pink one will not do more than clear me from Steventon."

Is "clear me from Steventon" an archaic idiom, meaning, in the above context, "suffice as my gown wardrobe until I leave Steventon" ? I do not see that she ever used this particular expression in any of her novels or other letters.


"How do you like this cold weather? I hope you have all been earnestly praying for it as a salutary relief from the dreadfully mild and unhealthy season preceding it, fancying yourself half putrified from the want of it, and that now you all draw into the fire, complain that you never felt such bitterness of cold before, that you are half starved, quite frozen, and wish the mild weather back again with all your hearts. "

This seems to me a rather morbid and intense meditation on the perverseness of human nature, a variant on "the grass is always greener"---in this case, "the weather before was always nicer than it is now". I am reminded of the line from Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson", which made a strong impression on me 40 years ago: "Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose, every way you look at it, you lose"


"Your unfortunate sister was betrayed last Thursday into a situation of the utmost cruelty.I arrived at Ashe Park before the Party from Deane, and was shut up in the drawing-room with Mr. Holder alone for ten minutes. I had some thoughts of insisting on the housekeeper or Mary Corbett being sent for, and nothing could prevail on me to move two steps from the door, on the lock of which I kept one hand constantly fixed. "

Gee, JA must have woken up in a very dark mood that day! I don't believe that JA was really concerned about old family friend Mr. Holder (the great purveyor of infamous puns, age 54 in 1801) attempting a Mr. Eltonesque date rape on JA while they were alone, but perhaps there must have been a slight "creep" factor with him which JA and CEA concurred about, and which would have spurred this bit of black humor on JA's part.


"On Friday I wound up my four days of dissipation by meeting William Digweed at Deane, and am pretty well, I thank you, after it. While I was there a sudden fall of snow rendered the roads impassable, and made my journey home in the little carriage much more easy and agreeable than my journey down. "

And is it just a coincidence that this little vignette _also_ reminds us of that Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls? "am pretty well, I thank you, after it" strikes me as reflecting that JA did enjoy a bit of "medicinal" alcoholic intake during the long, lost weekend of dissipation, and did not regret it.


"You will be glad to hear that Mary is going to keep another maid. I fancy Sally is too much of a servant to find time for everything..."

Perhaps we should not be surprised that things were going better financially for James and Mary at that precise moment, enabling them to hire another maid, after their bargain basement acquisition of the Steventon furnishings from Jane's parents!


"I would not give much for Mr. Rice's chance of living at Deane; he builds his hope, I find, not upon anything that his mother has written, but upon the effect of what he has written himself. He must write a great deal better than those eyes indicate if he can persuade a perverse and narrow-minded woman to oblige those whom she does not love. "

In Letter 30, JA first discussed where Henry Rice would find a living. Now he is again a topic, and here it is clear that JA is _not_ a big fan of Henry Rice's mother, to put it mildly. But first, I love the phrase"than those eyes indicate"--JA shrewdly judged people, the way an experienced farmer shrewdly judged animals---looking into their eyes, directly sensing who they were as people. For all her enormous erudition and intellect, ultimately JA went on what her gut told her about people.

Interestingly, Le Faye, in her bio index entry for the Rice family, breathes nary a word about JA's siding with Mr. Rice in his family squabbles. Instead she writes "Henry Rice was cheerful and amusing but a hopeless spendthrift and gambler, forever expecting his widowed mother to pay the debts he constantly incurred." This is _exactly_ like Le Faye writing her hatchet jobs on Nokes, Halperin and other scholars who dared to put forward interpretations of JA's writing and/or biography that Le Faye did not agree with. But here, Le Faye is not going to come out and say directly that she thinks JA was completely taken in by Mr. Rice (the way, e.g., that Lizzy is initially taken in by Wickham), but you know that is exactly what Le Faye thinks, and so she obliquely implies that conclusion in every way possible short of saying what she really means!

Assuming for the moment that JA was accurate in her damning portrait of Mrs. Rice, and also assumig that Le Faye was correct that Henry Rice was a longtime spendthrift, we today might, as I believe JA did, infer a strong causal connection, which Le Faye ignored. I.e., it is often the case that irresponsible acting out in the form of gambling and overspending can be significantly traced to a profound lack of maternal love during childhood, and that sure is what it sounds like here.

By the way, Henry Rice married Jemima -Lucy Lefroy (elder sister of Anna Austen's future husband, Ben Lefroy) a few months after JA wrote Letter 33, and it seems that Henry Rice _was_ successful in obtaining his mother's financial assistance after all, because Le Faye shows him as being the curate at Ashe _and_ Deane from 1801-1805. And to his credit, he only sired three children on his wife, and both of them wound up living _very_ long, i.e., 59 (married) years together! So in the end of the day, I think JA saw things as they were when she looked into Henry Rice's eyes!


"Edward Cooper is so kind as to want us all to come to Hamstall this summer, instead of going to the sea, but we are not so kind as to mean to do it. The summer after, if you please, Mr. Cooper, but for the present we greatly prefer the sea to all our relations. "

As I have said before, JA did _not_ like cousin Edward Cooper, not one little bit--Miss Jane Austen definitely does _not_ regret the lack of his company!


"I dare say you will spend a very pleasant three weeks in town. I hope you will see everything worthy notice, from the Opera House to Henry's office in Cleveland Court; and I shall expect you to lay in a stock of intelligence that may procure me amusement for a twelvemonth to come."

And there again JA returns to the Opera House--as she also mentioned it vis a vis the great Mrs. Jordan in Letter 30.

Cheers, ARNIE

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